From US to NZ

August 30, 2006 – 10:44 pm

I just got back from a week in the US for Foo Camp, where I had a great time shopping two ideas around:

  • New Zealand can be a hub of innovation, and
  • Kids aren’t being turned onto science and technology as careers

Re: the first idea, this interesting CNet news article talks about how the 1980s and 1990s saw Indian and Chinese technologists imported into Silicon Valley to fuel the great tech booms then. Now those technologists are returning home to create startups and build the local version of Silicon Valley. Ben Nolan and John Clegg from ProjectX are examples of this in New Zealand.

The head of the Berkeley School of Information Management Systems, whose thesis is this migration, hit a few resonant points for me:

  • They go back to their own counterparts, people they might have gone to high school with or grew up with, who are now running high-tech companies or running the government in those places. Then they share ideas. This is the brain circulation. That’s happening in New Zealand with Ben, John, me, and many others.
  • What makes for a thriving technology community like Silicon Valley? […] It is certainly not government incentives. The NZ Government is locked in incentives mode. Incentives are blowing on sparks: if there’s no spark (the innovator) or no fuel (capital, labour), then there’s no point blowing on it.
  • These new regions, Taiwan, Bangalore, Shanghai, they are extensions of Silicon Valley. This happens from people with deep roots in Silicon Valley, and then they take with them elements of the Silicon Valley business model–the start-up culture, the venture capital, the idea of minimizing hierarchy and creating more open organizations, which is often alien in places like India and China. Those economies have been dominated by family run firms or state-supported enterprises. And they’re not creating head-on competitors to Silicon Valley; they’re creating linked partners. NZ has been dominated by family-run firms and state-supported enterprises. It’s ripe for this start-up culture. There are some signs of it with incubators like Spark and Canterbury Innovation Incubator, but the proof of the pudding is repeat business: a lot of Silcon Valley’s success comes from the pool of experienced talent. We’re still building that, but it’ll be awesome to see people come around again and again for second and third startups.
  • We have tremendous assets here we overlook–like the U.S. capital market, which allows investors to exit from deals quickly, the U.S. legal system, which is more reliable than the rest of the world. The technology capital of leading-edge researchers is still far ahead of other parts of the world. I wonder how much of a limitation the NZ capital markets will be. Recent tech companies like Navman and Rakon are IPOing in Australia and US, which suggests the paltry amount of money in the NZ markets is a surmountable hurdle.

Regarding kids and science and technology, I had some great conversations with Saul Griffith (coauthor of Howtoons), Lee Felsenstein (founder of the Homebrew Computer Club), and Mitchell Baker (of the Mozilla Foundation) about how kids aren’t being turned on to the possibilities of a career in science or computing. I’ve noticed the kids around me being, in some cases, actively discouraged from following their computing interests. “Computers” are taught as tools, not as creative systems: they’re taught to make a web page or to create Powerpoint presentations, but never to program. Ghastly.

This came out of a conversation I’d had with Ewan Tempero where I said: imagine I had all the world’s resources at my fingertips, what’s the biggest problem I could bring them to bear upon? He replied with just one word: “intake”. The Auckland CS department isn’t replacing staff who leave because since 2001 the first year CS signups have been monotonically decreasing. It’s the same across all NZ universities and in the US as well. At the same time, demand for graduates has gone up: if you graduate from the Software Engineering programme at Auckland, there are dozens of companies slavering to hire you.

Another data point: testimony to the US government by Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed:

A youth wishing to become a mathematician, scientist or engineer must decide in ninth grade to take courses which preserve the option to pursue a career in any of these fields, said Augustine. Further, the leakage rate in the process of producing credentialed researchers is very high. In the field of mathematics, for example, based on current trends one must begin with 3,500 ninth-graders in 2005 to produce 300 freshmen qualified to pursue a degree in mathematics. Of these, about 10 will actually receive a bachelors degree in the field. Finally, one PhD in mathematics will emerge in about 2019.

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